Metro to narrow down budget-cut options that will be put to the public

Metro’s board of directors plans to decide Thursday what options will go to the public for hearings as the transit authority tries to fill a $116 million gap in its next budget.

Metro has said it needs to consider cutting service, raising fares or receiving more money from local jurisdictions to close the deficit in its $1.6 billion operating plan for fiscal 2013. General Manager Richard Sarles has proposed a combination, with increases in parking fees and rail and bus fares, plus requesting more money from regional governments.

The news has frustrated riders who question the value of the service they are already receiving when they encounter broken escalators, malfunctioning trains and long waits every day.

Sarles has said the agency is making progress but that it will take time to correct problems that have accumulated over many years.

In his budget, Sarles has proposed eliminating Metro’s peak-of-the-peak surcharge for travel during the rail system’s busiest times, and he wants to push riders to use SmarTrip electronic Farecards by implementing a premium flat rate for paper cards.

Board members have said they want riders to consider more options for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Some Metro board members have also supported the idea of having a two-zone system, where trips within a “visitor zone,” closer to the downtown core, would cost $4 and all other trips $6. Board members also want the public to weigh in on implementing a 5-cent surcharge at two stops in each jurisdiction that would go to funding station improvements.

On Thursday, the Metro board will also hear from managers on what progress the agency has made in meeting safety recommendations made by watchdog groups.

The transit authority has been working to improve safety since the 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people and injured dozens. In its final report on the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board cited technical reasons for the crash but said a negligent safety culture made an accident inevitable.

Metro has 27 “open and acceptable” recommendations from the NTSB, according to a presentation that safety officials plan to make to the board. Fifteen of those are related to the Red Line crash, while the rest involve other accidents, including two from 2006 in which trains struck and killed workers on the Yellow and Red lines.

The Federal Transit Administration has closed out all its recommendations, according to Metro, saying it believes the agency has a “strong commitment to addressing FTA’s concerns and to re-building a strong foundation to improved safety performance.”

But Metro still has issues with equipment and personnel.

According to the safety report, employee injuries declined 24 percent for November 2011, compared with October 2011. Passenger injuries, however, were up 35 percent for the same time period. Officials said that increase was primarily because of 10 bus collisions that involved 20 people being transported to hospitals in November.

In the past five weeks, friction rings — part of rail car brake assemblies — have fallen off trains in two separate incidents. Metro is still investigating the causes.

On Dec. 2, a 10-car train entered service on the Red Line despite the system being designed to handle passenger trains that are a maximum of eight cars long. Three Metro employees were disciplined in that case.

Two Metro employees were also arrested this month after prosecutors said they conspired to steal thousands from the authority since at least 2010.

Dana Hedgpeth is a Post reporter, working the early morning, reporting on traffic, crime and other local issues.

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